Just three years ago, pro-democracy protesters in Ukraine were in the streets demanding their country start down the path to joining the European Union. After Russia objected and took pieces of its neighbor by force, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were forced to fight for their country and its goal. Thousands have been killed in an ongoing war on Europe’s fringe.
Finally, on May 30 the 28-nation EU took the last major step in approving a pact that grants a close association with the Eastern European country, one that starts with opening trade and travel.
The critical approval came in a vote by the Dutch parliament, the last vote needed from each EU member state and the most difficult. Last year, during the peak of anti-EU populist sentiment in Europe, voters in the Netherlands passed a nonbinding referendum against any EU pact with Ukraine. Since then, the populist tide has ebbed. The EU promised the Dutch not to let Ukraine fully join the union without later approval. Dutch lawmakers then gave the nod. Now a formal acceptance of the pact is expected in July.
At a time when three major countries – the United States, Britain, and Turkey – are pulling away from Europe, Ukraine’s eagerness to embrace the EU and its values shows how much other countries want in. Ukraine still has far to go to cement full membership. The country’s wealthy elite still wield too much power in its democracy. The fight against corruption has only begun. And even as it struggles with each political reform, the government also struggles against Russian military aggression in its eastern region and the loss of Crimea.
Still, this victory will provide “a guarantee of our freedom, independence, and territorial integrity,” says Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “Europe is our civilizational choice.” And Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, spoke of the new partnership with the Ukrainian people as “one of our closest and most valued.”
Foreign tourists in Europe often treat it as a theme park, drawn by the cultural and historical attractions. For others outside the EU, however, the allure is a deeper theme, that of civic values such as equality and openness. And they are willing to make big sacrifices to join the Continent’s biggest club.
With this approval, the EU is now in a better position to negotiate with Russia in ending the war in Ukraine. Europe’s soft power of attraction is winning out over Moscow’s hard power.